Horror is evolving as a genre. Although your local multiplex is still loaded with the usual contenders, look a bit closer and you’ll find the latest drama, thriller, or crime offering is closer to horror than you might expect. In this bi-weekly series, Joey Keogh presents a film not generally classified as horror and argues why it exhibits the qualities of a great flight flick, and therefore deserves the attention of fans as an example of Not Quite Horror. This week, it’s prison drama Starred Up.
On the last installment, we visited an insane asylum. This time around, it’s a prison; which is proof, if any were needed, that Not Quite Horror is a dark place to be even if it isn’t technically horror. Starred Up, a British flick from director David Mackenzie and writer Jonathan Asser, follows a 19-year-old offender named Eric Love (a ferocious Jack O’Connell) who’s moved to an adult prison where his father resides. Asser based the screenplay on his own experiences as a volunteer prison pyschiatrist, his insert here being the well-meaning Oliver (played by Rupert Friend).
His name may be Love but Eric is pure, unbridled, broiling hatred. O’Connell, is in his element in these kinds of roles with his tough-as-nails accent and genuine hard-ass tatts. He plays the character like a wild dog, who’s been caged and really doesn’t like it. As his father, Neville, Aussie Ben Mendelsohn is even tougher, a rottweiler to Eric’s yappy terrier. When the two first come face to face, Neville doesn’t even exchange pleasantries with his estranged son, choosing instead to order him to stay in line or face the consequences.
Starred Up is essentially a three-hander between O’Connell, Mendelsohn and Friend. The psychiatrist and father end up in a tug-of-war for Eric’s affections as, once he starts to rehabilitate and find some hope in his life, Neville begins to push back, simultaneously wanting the best and worst for his wayward kid. Mendelsohn is one of the most gifted actors of his generation, playing villains even when he’s ostensibly a good guy. Here, he handles Neville’s crisis of conscience with dignity and ease, exploding and holding back in equal measure.
This is a kid with absolutely no normal reactions whatsoever, flying off the handle when a fellow prisoner tries to help him and reacting violently and viciously to practically everything and everyone around him. When he knows he’s in trouble with the guards, Eric greases himself up like a prize-fighter, grabbing two planks of wood from his bed to use as weapons. This is a kid who has had to fight his whole life, who responds only to violence, shouting and swearing and literally kicking and screaming as he is restrained.
Friend’s therapist, Oliver, is the only one who can get through to him, and it’s in their group sessions with other prisoners that Eric begins to break free of his metaphorical chains. Unfortunately, it’s also through letting his guard down that he opens himself up to getting hurt, particularly by a father who may be looking out for himself more than his son. The question of whether Eric is a bad kid or just damaged hangs over Starred Up, expressed mostly through Oliver who finds himself frustrated by a flawed system that won’t allow him to treat Eric the way he needs.
His psychiatrist is the only person in Eric’s life without an agenda, telling him simply “I need to be here”. It’s through Oliver that this messed up, presumed hopeless case is able to see the light, even when he’s dragged back into the darkness by his father. Indeed, in the end, the darkest influence on Eric isn’t his own violent motivations, or even the other prisoners, it’s Neville, who’s struggling to survive in prison while also stepping up to a role he never wanted, or for which he didn’t, and doesn’t, think himself capable.
Starred Up is a profoundly dark, violent, unflinchingly realistic portrayal of prison life. Asser’s own experiences shine through in a deftly honest, and often very poignant script, his characters drawn as empathetic, believable human beings even in their darkest moments. Shot on location in a real Northern Irish prison, the setting feels simultaneously like a cage and a maze, both playground and torture chamber. The villains aren’t just those incarcerated, they’re the ones in power too, who want to dispose of Eric rather than waste their time trying to help him.
O’Connell was born to play angry young men such as this one. Although Mendelsohn is stunningly unhinged as Neville, all bared teeth and narrowed, rodent-like eyes, his son is the real beast here. When Eric tells the group he doesn’t feel anything, punching himself in the head for emphasis, we believe him. When he attempts to shock Oliver with tales of being sexually abused as a youngster, we buy it completely. When he’s laughing maniacally, alone in his cell, it’s a glimpse into a tortured psyche that feels horribly real thanks to the stripped back strength of O’Connell’s performance.
Its roughness is matched by that of the film itself, foregoing score entirely save for one, isolated sequence, the camera jumping about as though the footage is being captured guerilla style. A scuffle in the shower, during which O’Connell fights for his life against an assailant while completely nude, lays bare the film-makers’ intentions in telling this story. There’s nothing glamorous or sanitary or safe about it. It’s the sick, terrifying reality of the situation in which this still too-young kid finds himself.
This is the British up-and-comer’s second Not Quite Horror appearance following Belfast-set shocker ’71, and something tells me it won’t be his last. O’Connell may be a star in the making, holding his own when he’s the only person on-screen just as well as he does opposite heavy-hitters like Mendelsohn, but he’s not your typical young actor. He’s the real deal, rough, ready and unwilling to sand down the edges of his live-wire personality. This makes him a perfect fit for telling tough stories such as Starred Up, which root themselves in a fucked-up situation that, unfortunately, is the reality for far too many young people like Eric.